All we are saying is give peace a chance…

A classic breach of the peace.

The other week I was contacted by one of my Twitter followers curious about an incident he had witnessed in his home town. He’d seen officers arrest a young malefactor to prevent a ‘breach of the peace’ and asked me what the term means.

This is a question that demands a little more than one hundred and forty characters to address so here it is, breach of the peace explained in less than six hundred easily digestible words.

Starting off, a ‘breach of the peace’ is one of the odder offences that we deal with – odd in that it’s not really an offence at all. It has its roots in common law and stems from, as the text itself proclaims, ‘A STATUTE made in the Parliament holden at Westminster; In the Thirty-fourth Year’ called the Justices of the Peace Act 1361.

The Act states that there ‘shall be assigned for the keeping of the Peace, one Lord, and with him three or four of the most worthy in the County, with some learned in the Law, and they shall have Power to restrain the Offenders, Rioters, and all other Barators’ who have offended said peace.

It’s a cracking little law, principally because it seems to imply that we police officers are amongst ‘the most worthy in the County’, and affords us the power to ensure that the Queen’s peace is not disturbed.

In terms of what actually constitutes a breach of the peace, the relatively modern case law arising from R v Howell (1981) defines a breach as ‘wherever harm is actually done or is likely to be done to a person or in his presence his property, or a person is in fear of being so harmed, through an assault, an affray, a riot, unlawful assembly or other disturbance‘.

Police officers have powers both to arrest a person to prevent a breach of the peace occurring, or continuing, and also to enter private property.

On the street an arrest for a breach of the peace is often a last resort and will take place when we’ve made every effort to try and diffuse a situation through other means.

As the definition is relatively wide the power can be used in a variety of different situations, for example when the Met arrested nearly one hundred and eighty EDL members near Whitehall last year out of concern they threatened a breach.

Once a person is arrested to prevent a breach of the peace, they’ll be brought back to the station and a decision made on how to deal with their case. Often they’ll be held until the threat of a breach has passed and they they’ll be released with charge, as was the case with the Met’s EDL arrests.

If the breach was of a particularly serious nature or the detained person has previous history for similar arrests, the alternate option to is to charge them and send them to court. At court the person can be ‘bound over’ meaning that the court requires that they keep the peace in the future.

The ability to arrest to prevent a breach of the peace is useful to officers as it offers a fairly simple way to prevent any substantive criminal offences from taking place and to give the person arrested the chance to calm down a little before he or she does something that they may come to regret.

Ultimately it’s a measure that allows us to try and ensure ‘good Behaviour towards the King and his People’ – something that’s rather important!

1 Response to “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”

  1. 1 Tim Lewis (@tflewis60) 03/07/2012 at 09:09

    Perhaps these days we should say “Monarch and her/his People”..

    I appreciate these Powers are needed, but they can so easily be opened to abuse.

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